Pacemakers save up to half a million lives every year by zapping and normalising out-of-control heartbeats. Surgeons implant 200,000 every month. But they are still relatively low tech: a hunk of metal attached to an electrode that pokes into the heart chamber. They can fail mechanically, and the electrodes can cause tissue damage.
The cells created at Stanford could mean a pacemaker that never has to come in contact with the heart itself. First surgeons would implant specially-dyed cells onto the heart. Then, if the heart starts to spaz, a device placed in the pericardium, or lining of the heart, could shine a light to bring the beating to a controlled pace.
Making cells that respond to light is part of a field called “optogenetics” that the smarties at Stanford have been spearheading since 2005. For the current study, they took embryonic stem cells (which can become pretty much any type of human cell and are controversial because some people think they are babies) and inserted DNA that encodes a light-sensitive protein called channelrhodopsin-2, or ChR2. Then they induced the stem cells to become heart cells (that part is old hat).
The researchers have also created neurons they can control with light to study what’s going on in the brain cells of people with diseases like schizophrenia and depression.
Is anyone else imagining a whole new game for those annoying laser pointers?
Image: Shutterstock/R.T. Wohlstadter